The Complete Cycle

October 06, 2015

Like many other faiths and belief systems, Jewish religious life is marked by a regular, recurring rhythm, one of prescribed dates and hours comprising the daily, weekly, monthly, annual, and human life span observances, rituals, liturgical occasions, and ceremonies, all of which may be understood as part of the overarching cycle of Jewish life. 

The Milken Archive’s Volume 4: Cycle of Life in Synagogue and Home surveys the musical component of this life cycle with music that is sacred and secular, personal and communal, festive and somber, rousing and contemplative. Two new albums out this month complete a three-album set, Festivals (Mo’adim) and Other Occasions on the Liturgical Calendar, that began earlier this year with Passover. The two new albums include musical settings for Purim, Sukkot, and Simhat Torah.

Issachar Miron’s Psalms of Israel: A Hallel Oratorio is a cantata for three-part treble voices and tenor and soprano solos that contains settings of some of the Psalms of praise that comprise the liturgical recitation of Hallel. Apart from Hallel’s mandated inclusion in certain specific synagogue services (i.e., Passover, Sukkot, Hanukka), Hallel may also be recited at secular celebrations. Miron’s piece was originally composed for Yom Ha’atzmaut.

That the completion of Volume 4 includes one of Miron’s pieces is a fitting coincidence. Miron, who died this past January, devoted a most of his 95 years to the Jewish people. He is best known for the song “Tzena Tzena,” which was popularized by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, but Miron also composed numerous classically oriented instrumental and vocal works. A fine example of Miron’s skill in this area is his setting of Ahavti ki yishma, beautifully performed here by soprano Ana Maria Martinez and the Barcelona Symphony.

Moshe Ganchoff’s setting of Hosha na even sh’siya—composed forHoshana Rabba, the seventh day of the Festival of Sukkot—conveys the solo cantorial style of the modern khor shul (choral synagogue) of eastern Europe. The text, an acrostic piyyut that refers to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is chanted during the second of seven processions on Hoshana Rabba. With cantorial lines that combine emotional intensity with restraint and dignity, it is one of Ganchoff’s most beloved works. Much-loved cantor Alberto Mizrahi, who studied with Ganchoff, sings the rendition here, accompanied by the Finchley Children’s Music Group and Schola Hebraeica with Neil Levin conducting.

Speaking of khor shuls, Meyer Machtenberg was one of the finest and most sought-after traditional synagogue choirmasters of his era (he also directed choirs for the Manhattan Opera House). Machtenberg wrote many fine settings for cantor and choir in the traditional eastern European mold, and sometimes inflected them with elements of Yiddish theatrical and folk idioms. Meir Finkelstein and the New York Cantorial Choir give an admirable performance of his Torah Service, which in its day was sung by such luminaries as Jan Peerce and Cantor David Barkin.

Tisha b’av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, is represented here with settings of Eli tzion (Mourn Zion) by Samuel Adler and Hugo Weisgall, as well as with an inventive madrigal by Herbert Fromm. Though the madrigal is generally considered to have peaked during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, this ”word-painting” approach has had a few modern adherents. Fromm was one of them, as evidenced by the several madrigals he wrote for Jewish occasions. In addition to his Ninth of Av Madrigal, Fromm’s madrigals for both Purim and Sukkot are also included here. The set closes with Debbie Friedman’s The Purim Ball, and a lively choral piece by Max Helfman titled Purim Polka.

Ecclesiastes states that to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. So too is there a soundtrack.

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